Last night's television

LAST NIGHT
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To those fortunate enough to see, the idea of blindness taxes the imagination. Is it the mere (although shocking) absence of colour, shape and light, or some more tangible world - darkness visible? In a fascinating attempt to promote understanding, last night's Network First (ITV) guided the viewer around the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, a weekly boarding school for the congenitally blind and severely visually impaired.

As if in satirical demonstration of the poverty of empathy in the sighted, the film started off with a black screen, while one of the students mused wryly: "Black - pitch black. I can't see black but I just imagine it." Far from being what is left when everything else is removed, even the idea of blackness requires a context of the experience of light to be understood. And today, the phrase "visually impaired" is usually preferred to the term "blind", perhaps because the latter is so often used figuratively to denounce someone as unobservant or just stupid. We have nothing to lose but our metaphors.

When the poet John Milton was battling with the onset of his own blindness, he wrote an anguished sonnet demanding: "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?" Understandably, he shivered at the prospect of being obliged, though blind, yet to serve God, suffering all the daily slings and arrows of the seeing.

Milton, however, was a bear of big enough brain to extract theological succour even from this terrifying condition, concluding the poem by advising himself: "They also serve who only stand and wait." Far from standing and waiting, of course, he went on to dictate Paradise Lost to his scribe daughters. Similarly, the aim of the teachers at the Royal Blind School, as the headteacher, Kevin Tansley, explained, is "to help young people with severe vision impairment to be as independent as possible" - since, sadly, the seeing world will never change to accommodate them, these youngsters will be encouraged to make superhuman efforts to play and work on its terms.

And what efforts. Here were children, not just learning to negotiate kerbs with a white stick, but climbing artificial rock-faces, bowling, water-skiing, lighting Bunsen burners in science lessons, and using computers. By staggering these pictorial revelations, the film adroitly worked on the viewer's initial prejudiced reaction - isn't it amazing that they can do anything at all? - and the children themselves were so involving, witty and articulate (language was by necessity their primary connection to other people, after all) that you ceased to regard their absence of vision as a fundamental disability.

One teenage girl, Vicky, happily explained the advantage of going out with visually impaired boyfriends: "They don't look at other girls and go, 'Ooh, she's nice'," she chuckled. Another girl, Elizabeth Anne, said that the only really annoying aspects to her blindness were the "little things", like not being able to see the display on the CD player, or not being able to nip out to the ice-cream van. "But they don't really matter because you can always find a way around them. And if you don't, you're not trying hard enough."

Music is one area where the visually impaired can excel. By ear alone, one boy could reproduce a lovely, complex discord at the keyboard; there was some excellent singing in the joyous school production of Oklahoma!; and the film twice built up to two long, unembarrassed, swirling epiphanies at the advert breaks: one girl playing the harp, one boy playing the piano. These were unusually talented youngsters: excellent for their age, not just good for their condition.

Given this focus on music, however, the film's own soundtrack betrayed the director Alan Macmillan's own laudable avoidance of sticky sympathy. Written by the appropriately named Stephen Faux, it consisted of Satie- esque piano tunes in the upper register, awash with electronic reverb, and in its naively aspirational tenor it seemed to be saying "poor kids".

This schmaltzy effect became particularly intrusive in a very odd, very long shot in the film, where the camera watched through a doorway as a boy struggled to put his shirt on after a swimming lesson. It was a dismaying lapse of moral taste. If there is just one thing the visually impaired can rightfully expect from us, it is not to be spied upon in such a fashion.

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